While Alton boys’ basketball has enjoyed its fair share of success, its counterpart on the girls’ side unfortunately has not.
On the boys’ side, the Redbirds have a state tournament appearance in 2000-01, played in super-sectionals in 1996-97 and ‘04-05 and played in back-to-back sectional championship games in ‘14-15 and ‘15-16. Subsequently, on the girls’ side AHS hasn’t won a regional since 1985. Its first winning season since was a 15-13 year in 2013-14, Bobby Rickman’s first season at the helm.
With Rickman’s resignation on March 3 after 4 seasons it broached the question — where does Alton go from here?
“First of all we want to thank coach Rickman because there are a lot of things that didn’t show in the record, but there are a lot of things that he did and established for our girls’ program,” AHS director of athletics Jeff Alderman said. “I think he’s to be commended for that, those efforts for our students.
“No. 1, we’re going to look for the best candidate we can to fill this position and one that not only is a good quality coach and wants to work with levels throughout the school district, but one that understands the community and is connected and has some credibility with this. I really think that, combined with energy, enthusiasm and a tireless work ethic, this can be the type of person that gets things done.”
Finding a coach that can stick with the program should be a top priority. Rickman was the fifth head coach in the last 10 years and the longest tenured since Tammy Talbert directed the Redbirds from 2002-08. Talbert returned as Rickman’s assistant in ‘16-17 after a stint coaching Roxana High School.
William Gordon (‘08-10), Larry Lowis (‘10-11) and Jennifer Jones (‘11-13) were sandwiched between Talbert and Rickman. Through those five coaches Talbert, Gordon and Rickman each had one season where they reached double digits in wins. Lowis’ 0-27 mark in ‘10-11 was the lowest point.
There must be a fundamental change to the entire program, which should include a grassroots program. Templates are in place with what Civic Memorial head coach Jonathan Denney has done and what Lori Blade has accomplished at Edwardsville High.
A quick look at those examples sees success at the youth level, too.
Liberty Middle School in Edwardsville won an IESA Class 4A state title in the 7th grade, while Trimpe Middle School in Bethalto was state runner-up in 4A at the 8th-grade level this season.
“What coach Denney has done in recent history at CM is certainly showing its fruits and coach Blade may arguably be one of the best coaches in the Midwest at any level,” Alderman said. “What she’s done certainly speaks for itself and those are obviously great models. But once again I think what people need to be aware of is that’s knowing the respective community and knowing what takes place there and approaching people in that community, because just like any community here in Alton we have a number of people that have interest and want to help out and it’s a matter of making those connections.”
Rickman believes there’s a disconnect between the Alton and Godfrey communities at the youth level, which limits a successful grassroots program.
“For sports in the community, I think the one thing that has not been available is a youth program that starts at an early age for girls, especially when it relates to basketball,” Rickman said. “I think you see it in soccer and softball and I think that’s why there is more success in those sports. It’s because of the grassroots programs you have in them. That’s important; that’s what Edwardsville and CM and communities like that have available.
“I think with having two communities in Alton and Godfrey, you have two different groups trying to get kids in, where maybe a combined effort might help. I think we would see a lot more positives if we had a united program of basketball of getting these kids playing and active and learning the game from above.”
Rickman added, “We have some athletes that could be part of this program but just choose not to because they haven’t grown up and gotten to know each other. They want to play something with their friends and their friends aren’t playing basketball, so they’re not playing basketball.”
Growing a program can take time, so the next AHS varsity coach needs a long leash. Denney took over at CM in ‘06-07 and didn’t win his first regional until ‘12-13. The Eagles have now won five in a row and sprinkled in a couple sectionals in ‘13-14 and this season.
Blade has been at EHS since ‘02-03 and has led the Tigers to a pair of state runner-up finishes in ‘11-12 and ‘16-17. They also have 14 regional titles, 12 sectional crowns and 5 state tournament appearances over that time.
“I think if you look at any successful high school program, it’s one that is long-term where kids know in the second and third grade who their coach is going to be and that’s across the board with anything,” Alderman said. “It’s a two-way street; those coaches reach out to them and work at that and it creates a natural carry-over.”
It’s going to take someone who is willing to work and nourish the struggling structure and culture.
Alton boys’ coach Eric Smith is a template, too.
“On our boys’ side, coach is connected to local AAU teams, he stays in touch with his players throughout the season and throughout the year,” Alderman said.
The job is posted and the district is accepting applications. Alderman said being a teacher is preferred for the position, but is not required.